I have, thus far, written three Doctor Who posts and refrained from actually posting them, because they just weren’t interesting enough to expect other people to invest their time in. Two of them were even written since someone, somewhere, specifically expressed interest in my thoughts on matters Whovian. The thing about writing about Doctor Who is trying to navigate the exclusive border between geekery indulgence (can I just assume readers know what a Silurian is?) and unnecessary tour-guidance (if I spend a thousand words recapping the three-season plot arc of River Song, that’s a lot to slog through before I say much that’s new).
At Tiger Beatdown, Lindsay Miller has expressed her incandescent hatred for the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, and elsewhere TB founder Sady Doyle has made related points on the worship of Rory. I still like Doctor Who, I’m still deeply looking forward to the Christmas special and the next season, and I’m even still 90% sure the Eleventh Doctor is my favourite yet (there’s 10% left for Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth, of course). I think both of the posts I just linked to draw some questionable conclusions and are on occasion factually wrong – but that doesn’t make either one wrong about everything, and they both helped me understand the occasional discomfort I did have throughout Eleven’s first season. (His second and most recent season was an unqualified gong show, but I can’t be sure I’d have noticed that on its own either.)
So I want to talk about Doctor Who and sexism and Watsonian narrative concepts, but I’m still stuck back on the ‘Do I explain what a Silurian is or do I assume everyone already knows about Fixed Points and the Timey Wimey Ball?’ I don’t know if I want to commit to either one of those, so I’m not sure I can talk about Doctor who qua Doctor Who. I need a more general topic.
Let’s start with love.
For the first several seasons of the… let’s go for the pun and call it the regenerated Doctor Who TV series, the show was run by one Russell T Davies, a man with many excellent executive virtues – love of the source material, an openness of mind, and a freewheeling joy about creating big ideas. He also had a love of melodrama, which I appreciate as its own style – “Do I save the life of this one person I love and let the entire rest of the world get nuked?” is an absurd question, yet I don’t care – but went completely over the top in most season finales, and was generally at his best when not allowed a particularly impressive effects budget. Of course he had to leave at the end of 2009; the only conceivable story left for him to write would be the entire universe getting into an atomic fistfight with Yog-Sothoth.
In a discussion of Doctor Who, and in particular Davies’ penchant for having the Doctor save everyone and everything and be totally awesome and adored all day every day, someone (I forget who; feel free to speak up) suggested that Davies himself was in love with the Doctor, an adoration that simultaneously compelled him to present the Doctor as an ever-more-wonderful person while making him completely unable to grasp why anyone might reasonably object to some of the Doctor’s actions. The first two Companions also fell madly in love with the Doctor, although I believe somewhere in Jacob Clifton’s magnificent musings on the series he observes that Rose loved the Doctor as a man and Martha loved him as a god. I’m atheist, so I can’t be sure, but I think I know what that feels like, and one of the things about putting that kind of love on someone is that it really twists things up when they insist on going and being all fallible and human. So in a way it helps that the Doctor isn’t human and is only as fallible as the writer chooses to make him – no risk of feeling betrayed or not understanding why the love would say or think or do such a thing.
But there’s something else important about the first new seasons of Doctor Who: for all that the creators may have loved the Doctor, they loved the Companions so much more. People who felt ordinary, never good enough, people who would always lash themselves with their own inadequacies, would take the Doctor’s hand and learn a different way to see the world, to see all of time and space, and in the end the light of it would be pouring off them like a regeneration, because that’s what the Doctor does: he makes people better. Anyone, everyone. For all that I will get into my many issues with the newest seasons, they did phrase it very well last Christmas, when a near-random bystander is said not to be important: “Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.”
The whole show, the whole story from the most distant reaches to the heart of the timeship, ran on love. The Doctor loved his Companions, the Companions loved the Doctor, the writers loved both. And when you love someone as themselves, as a person, then I think you’ve got to love to see them grow and become more than they were, more of themselves. Rose grew to shoulder impossible burdens as readily and capably as the Doctor himself. Martha laughed in the face of an immortal tyrant and the end of the universe. Donna – oh, there is so much to say about Donna, but the important bit for this post goes thusly: Donna was unambitious and refused to be dismissed for it. She wanted to get married to a successful man and not worry about doing anything else with her life. And the thing about Donna is that she would not be told that she was lesser for it, she would not accept any idea that she didn’t matter just because she didn’t want to be the hero. She was, in the end – she saved all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will, and then when she was reduced from that, when her hero persona was killed and only the original mediocre Donna remained, she was still important.* She was still loved, and it ached to see that she had been robbed of her growth. I think it hurt more than if she had really died, which is why I have no patience for people who complain about what happened to her. It was supposed to hurt.
The first four seasons were about the ascension of the Companions more than anything. In each finale, the Doctor might be important, but it was the Companion who would save the day, who would, for a moment, achieve something that would eclipse even his own fantastic abilities. Rose ended the Time War and healed the Void; Martha defeated a Time Lord’s empire; Donna saved everyone, everywhere. And then, in the fifth season, Amy… um… was a living MacGuffin, a different kind of sonic screwdriver with an inherent feature that saved the Doctor**.
So now we finally get around to the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, with Steven Moffatt in charge of the show. And I do love Eleven, because he’s embraced that redeeming aspect of the Doctor, the bit that makes him a hero instead of an executioner – first he tries to make you better. Every time the Doctor regenerates, he becomes someone new. Well, the Doylist view is that there’s a new actor and perhaps new writers and they’re going to have their own take on the character. The Watsonian version, explaining everything in-universe, is that the random mutations of regeneration and the Doctor’s reactions to his own past change who he is. The Ninth Doctor had just killed every other Timelord*** in existence and X-minus-one Daleks****; he had to learn that he could save all of the people some of the time. The Tenth Doctor took that too far and had to learn that he couldn’t save all of the people all of the time. Eleven drew back, respected the limits of his domain, and embraced the idea of encouraging and enlightening everyone. Unfortunately, due to random mutations, he’s also sexist as frak.
I feel like I don’t need to make a case for this to anyone who’s seen the sixth season, but for the quick version, rewatch it and take note of any time he characterises River’s absurd behaviour as “Sigh, women“, consider his explicit view of Amy Pond as a child (regardless of age) and Amy Williams as an adult, and please, if you can, find some way of making their exchange during his wedding to River (“What am I doing?” “As you’re told.”) not cause me to want to cry blood. Because sweet and sour pan-fried cyborg zombie raptor Jebus, the Eleventh Doctor does not see River Song as a real person. He might love the idea of her, the wandering action hero who saves the day with him and sometimes knows things he doesn’t, but he keeps her like a magnificent pet – she’s even got her own cage. He never asks her opinion: not on whether she wants to marry him, not on whether she wants to go to prison for the rest of her (unknowably long) life to help him keep a low profile. These are important questions! These are things to be discussed with someone you love!
We are meant to be awed by River, we are meant to empathise with Amy, but the writers do not love them as people. We’re not meant to cheer for their growth or their dreams, and they are never the hero of the story. They are defined by their relationships to men – child!Amy dreams of the Raggedy Doctor while adult!Amy has a human husband; River was made to kill the Doctor and will live every moment of her life for him and will one day die for him. River snarks about how she was sure to fall for him, but it aches for me to look at her and realise that she could quite literally never marry anyone else. River was made to worship him: she’s not Rose, enraptured by the broken and caring man inside the mighty god; she’s Martha, given the thing that she most wants – though Martha was sharp enough to realise she shouldn’t have it.
I feel bad for River Song, because no matter how happy she is, her life has never been and apparently will never be her own. And I want to feed the Doctor his own cool bowtie, because he doesn’t seem to care. She’s not the hero, she’s not a person – she’s not really a Companion. More of an accessory. (I’d turn that into some kind of wordplay, like ‘accessory to violence’, but I’m too despondent at this point.)
I have a hope that we didn’t really see the end of River’s story way back in the Library. The screwdriver save was always iffy, but particularly now that we’ve seen the Doctor dodge his own appointed death through a truly awful ‘twist’, I’d love a retcon. Let the future Doctor and the real River have connived together to fool his younger self into believing she was dead, and duplicate of some sort have taken that mission. Or let someone go back and bring River out of the machine and into her body again, freshly synthesised, one last regeneration. Either way – let her go, let her out into the stars on her own. Let her be a person instead of a myth. You have to do that, when you love someone.
*Which is not to say that I don’t have a personal canon in which the defictionalised Noble Corporation (founded on lottery winnings) is a vast philanthropic globe-spanning engine restoring the world and pushing the frontiers of space exploration technology. If you look really closely in Waters of Mars, you can see ‘Noble’ trademarks on half the technology in that Martian colony. (Not really; don’t burn your eyes searching every pixel for it.)
**It occurs to me only as I write this that, while the previous Companions saved the universe or some portion/multiple thereof, Amy was relegated to saving the Doctor after he had already saved the universe. This is, of course, the assigned role of the Smart Girl archetype to keep her from outshining the actual hero, as was described and discussed in glorious length at Ana Mardoll’s blog.
***Gotta say, it bothers me that the default name for the species is ‘Time Lord’ when it’s also explicit that the women are called Time Ladies. If they were all Time Lords regardless of gender, that’d be improved (and there is historical precedent for female Lords) though probably still imperfect. Unfortunately, if you say ‘Gallifreyan’, even fewer people know what you’re talking about.
****Where X is defined as ‘however many Daleks we thought there were last week’. Y’know, originally I worried that this post wouldn’t have enough signature footnotes. That didn’t take long.